Ontario's Progressive Conservatives have opted to elect a new leader ahead of the June election as the party tries to recover from a chaotic 48 hours that saw Patrick Brown toppled by allegations of sexual misconduct and infighting about how to move forward between senior staff, party executives, MPPs and new star candidates.
After hours of debate in public and behind closed doors, PC Party president Rick Dykstra announced on Friday evening that the party's executive will hold a race to elect a permanent leader by the end of March. Under party rules, it is the role of caucus to decide the interim leader, but the executive, which includes four caucus members in addition to other party officials, has the final call on timing of a leadership election. The executive could have opted to delay a race until after the general election.
Earlier in the day, the Tory caucus elected Vic Fedeli as interim leader, a position he had hoped to continue to the polls in just four months. Mr. Fedeli and a number of MPPs said that they wanted to avoid a potentially divisive leadership race and focus on defeating Kathleen Wynne's Liberals on June 7. Soon after, more than two dozen of the party's nominees responded with a public letter demanding an open leadership race.
While Mr. Fedeli warned about the danger of Tories attacking each other in public before an election, after a day of see-sawing within the party, Mr. Dykstra was undaunted.
"This will be a very aggressive time frame," he said outside a lawyer's office in downtown Toronto where the party's executive met.
"This party, at the end of the day always stands united, always stands focused, and I can assure you that when this is finished, before the end of March, we will be ready to take on government in June, 2018."
The Tories had entered the week with a lead in the polls, a membership list that had swollen to more than 200,000 people and a large war chest after a sizable fundraising haul. Now, a growing list of people are mulling a run for the party's leadership and a chance to defeat a 14-year-old Liberal government and Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Moments after Mr. Dykstra's announcement, Mr. Fedeli said he planned to run for the permanent leadership. "I fully expect to be the leader that takes us into the election. I was made party leader by the caucus in a unanimous decision [on Friday]," he said.
Earlier on Friday, Mr. Fedeli, had warned against a leadership race that would start three months after the party already unveiled its platform for the coming election. "Are we going to spend time infighting and shooting ourselves in the foot and limping over to an election?" he said.
He had support from MPPs Lisa MacLeod and Bill Walker, who argued the former mayor of North Bay and the party's finance critic should lead the Tories into the 2018 vote. "We believe that Vic is the guy to lead us to victory on June 7," Mr. Walker said.
The rules for the leadership contest to choose Mr. Brown's permanent successor have not been written yet, according to Mr. Dykstra. A party committee will set out the rules of the contest in the coming days and will decide who will be able to run.
The names of potential candidates circulated like wildfire through Queen's Park on Friday and included failed leadership candidate Christine Elliott, PC candidate Caroline Mulroney (the daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney), former media chair Rod Phillips and former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford.
Ms. Elliott, who left politics to become Ontario's Patient Ombudsman, declined to comment when contacted through her office. A spokesperson said she "is a public appointee and represents an independent and impartial oversight body. Her organization is therefore non-partisan and cannot comment on political matters."
Ms. Mulroney did not disclose her intentions in a statement late on Friday afternoon. "Together, we will emerge from this leadership race stronger and more united to take back Ontario from Kathleen Wynne."
Mr. Phillips, who toured Queen's Park on Friday, said he was happy with the party's decision. "The leader who takes us into the election must have a strong mandate from our members," he said.
In one of his first acts as interim leader, Mr. Fedeli said he was calling on Mr. Brown to take a leave of absence from the PC caucus. He described the former leader's alleged actions as "deplorable" and said he would not sign off on Mr. Brown's nomination papers to run for the party in his Barrie-area riding until the allegations against the 39-year-old were properly addressed.
Mr. Brown has not been heard from publicly since a hastily called press conference on Wednesday evening where he denied allegations that he had inappropriate sexual contact with two young women several years ago.
Mr. Brown, who is single and does not drink alcohol, allegedly exposed himself to an intoxicated high-school student, asked for and received oral sex. He is also alleged to have aggressively kissed and climbed on top of an intoxicated 19-year-old who was alone with him in his bedroom. The allegations were first reported by CTV.
Mr. Brown's sister, Stephanie Brown, posted a statement on Facebook Friday morning in his defence.
"What happened to my brother was disgusting. And make no mistake, he is the victim," she wrote in a public post. "These completely false allegations were 100-per-cent politically motivated and nothing more than a political hit. I know them for a fact to be untrue."